A watchdog has ordered Barnet Council to apologise and pay £2,500 to a mother forced to live at risk of domestic abuse in a home in disrepair “causing significant distress”.
The report from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, which investigates complaints against councils, said the council wrongly considered the woman – referred to anonymously as ‘Miss X’ – could return to her privately rented home.
As a result, she and her two children had to live in unsuitable accommodation for approximately six months, which “caused distress to Miss X and her children, caused her mental health to decline and caused her to incur unnecessary expenses”.
In its response this week to the ombudsman report, the council has said it has “improved procedures for dealing with homelessness applications” following the complaint.
Miss X first approached the council for assistance in July 2022, as she considered she was at risk of domestic abuse from her former partner. But the council closed the case as they said they could not contact her.
In August 2022 the flat was also damaged by a flood, and a social worker for Miss X confirmed the flat was uninhabitable. Despite being asked by the social worker to provide emergency accommodation for Miss X, the council did not, and the family stayed with relatives before returning to the property.
Miss X’s landlord had told the council the damage caused by flooding was resolved and that Miss X would not need alternative accommodation. But Miss X’s social worker disagreed, saying the property was still unhabitable. They again raised the risk of domestic abuse.
However, the council did not progress Miss X’s homelessness application between August 2022 and January 2023. The council said this was due to waiting on written confirmation of the domestic abuse from Miss X’s social worker and for an environmental health officer to assess the condition of the property.
Around this point, Miss X stopped paying her rent, and her landlord served Miss X a Section 21 notice which gives tenants up to two months to leave the property. The environmental health officer from the council also told her the property was unsuitable due to the repairs needed.
The council then offered interim housing in the form of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which includes any nightly paid accommodation with no separate cooking and washing facilities. After six weeks, the council offered new self-contained temporary housing to Miss X but she refused because it was located too far from the local area.
Subsequently the council formally ended its duty to provide temporary accommodation and contacted Miss X’s landlord to try to persuade them to offer Miss X a new tenancy.
But the council has now acknowledged it was at fault in how it dealt with Miss X’s homelessness application, wrongly focusing on how to sustain her tenancy despite reports it was unsuitable, and did not provide interim accommodation in August 2022 when the disclosure of the domestic abuse was first made.
The ombudsman report stated the council’s failure to offer temporary housing initially, and the subsequent delays, were caused by officers not recognising when the duty to offer interim accommodation should be triggered.
It added: “The threshold for triggering the duty is low as the council only needed reason to believe Miss X was eligible, homeless and in priority need. The fact Miss X disclosed domestic abuse should have alerted the council that she may be homeless and in priority need so triggering its duty to provide interim accommodation.”
In response to the report, a Barnet Council spokesperson said: “When dealing with housing issues we normally receive a high level of customer satisfaction from our residents, however, regretfully on this occasion, we were unable to respond in a way that maintained these high standards.
“Since receiving this complaint we have apologised to the resident and implemented the recommended remedies, including improving our procedures for dealing with homelessness applications. This has included adapting the threshold for triggering the duty to offer interim accommodation and ensuring staff always consider all aspects of the applicants’ housing situation.
“We are taking on board all recommendations of this case as part of our work to continuously improve our services.”